Monday, 17 December 2012

Mapping social settings

I like maps.  As an outdoor type, I've a real respect for the art of the cartographer. The maps produced by the Ordnance Survey of the UK are practical and very clear; great for planning, route finding and problem solving.  They serve very well the purpose for which they have been designed.   

But maps, depending on how they are drawn, can be much more than aids to spatial awareness.  A recently published book - 'History of the World in Twelve Maps' by Professor Jerry Brotton describes how maps, through history, have shown us different things about the political, social and economic interests of a point in time.  The Mappa Mundi, for example, is not suitable for route-finding but it gives something of use and interest about the Christian world, based on the topography of the Bible. 


Mapping social settings


If you follow this blog you will know that I see it as important to be able to learn from practice through processes like learning by doing, learning from experience, learning from peers, noticing what's happening in the day-day always occuring action of the workplace. 
In terms of learning practice, this is not a discussion about blending content and media  - this helps  - but a disruptive challenge to the status quo.  Our practices in management learning are too reliant on theories and models; too abstracted from the workplace. 
An alternative is to place practice centre-stage and to make it available as a source of learning.  And this is where maps come into this, especially if we were able to produce maps of social settings.
Topographical maps have been designed to be practical: to help people understand something about a place, to make choices before taking action, to problem solve once in action.  The same must also be true for the mapping of social settings and for the design of practice-based learning.  In writing this blog I took a look at how online maps, like Google Maps, were created and discovered a number of parallels to my interests.  

Insights into real-world usage to better serve the needs of users

Good maps demand an understanding of users' needs.  The designers of Google Maps have used ethnography and usability research to create and refine a product that has become the benchmark.

Mapping as a local exercise—with cultural, ethnic, and region-specific quirks and nuances

If your interest is to understand how things work, in practice rather than in theory, then it follows that the better the detail, the better able you are to account for the practices that are important in that setting. 

For example, the designers at Google Maps found that, generally speaking, people navigate primarily by street names in Western countries and by landmarks and points of interest in the East. This is due to a combination of factors including a lack of road names, e.g. in India where locals rely on landmarks, or just a more complex street addressing system , e.g. in Japan where street numbers are assigned by date of construction, not sequentially. 

A feeling of friendliness, clarity, and simple focus

What if an intangible benefit of practice-based learning, based on social maps, was that it helped learners because it could be trusted to provide data-driven practical information that was easy to use? 

A collection of zoom levels, imagery, angles, and on-the-ground panoramas

What's taken for granted about maps?  That the birds-eye view of the ground is the only view?  Maps have always offered a range of scales (zoom levels if you like) but what the likes of Google Maps has done is to put us into the territory with satellite imagery and street view perspectives.  What else could be added?  - for example, sounds, temparatures, real-time data, user reviews, wikis?

Getting the data


Quite clearly, the investment required to gather the data on which Google Maps has been based has taken a great deal of time and money.  But what it has done is show us what can be achieved by getting into the detail as opposed to sticking with the status quo.

If we are going to be able to get the data from social settings, which has the level of detail to be able to construct something like a map of, say, human dynamics, then we need technology to help us.  It's why I have been following the work of Sociometric Solutions with interest.  It's an organisation that evolved from the MIT Media Lab and they have developed an electronic badge, similar to a security pass, which collects voice, body language and other proximity and location related data. 

Some of their work was featured in the April 2012 edition of HBR 'The New Science of Building Great Teams' pages 59-70.  If you follow this you will see examples of maps of intra and inter team interactions that are very interesting for the detail and the data that they produce.  To my mind, it is not difficult to see how this type of analysis could be extended to produce a range of social maps that, just like their counterparts from the world of topographical maps, might provide the base for overlays, search results and personal customisation.

Of course, even a Google Map is not a real-time representation of the territory and judgement and expertise is still required.  The emerging technology from Sociometric Solutions is giving a glimpse of how the gap to the social world of the workplace might be bridged. 

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Thursday, 15 November 2012

Performance development - moving away from the garage refit model

Some of my work includes programmes for managers in which I introduce them to the 70:20:10 model and its implications for how to think about development.  What interests me is that whilst managers have no difficulty in accepting the premise of the model - in fact there is almost a sense in which I might be stating something rather obvious - when I dig deeper their practices are somewhat wide of the mark.

I'm blogging about this because it feels really important to me to challenge what's being taken-for-granted.  To be straightforward, based on what I hear people talk about, development planning feels half-hearted, an after-thought, individualistic, transactional, about formal interventions, for self-starters or the career-minded only, and, rather crucially, separate from performance. 

If it is true that most of what we know, or can do, derives from 'learning by doing'  it follows that most development activities, which are linked to performance, should be about the work and done in the workplace setting.

Why is this not so?  Here are some of the things that I notice when I talk to managers:

Performance Development Plan = appraisal, not development. 

Notwithstanding the efforts by HR departments to emphasise the dual purpose of the PDP process to both review and rate historical performance and to plan development, I notice that managers see this process as being solely about  giving the performance rating.  The machinations of the rating process, with its levelling discussions and forced distributions, tip the balance towards appraisal and away from development.

Development = formal development

Discussions about development usually mean discussions about course nominations.  This taken-for-granted is deeply embedded and hard to shift.  The analogy of development being like a garage workshop fits well with how many managers talk about this topic – “remove a group of managers/team members from the workplace, repair or fit higher performance parts as instructed, lubricate if necessary and return to service.”

Development  = for special occasions only

Not only is development seen as a formal activity, it's also for special occasions only, related to a change in responsibilities, or the implementation of a new system or legislation.  If this is right, then I suspect that part of the issue is that workplace development just happens naturally within the normal course of everyday work.  As such, it's not being noted as development activity and therefore it's existence and purpose is being glossed over in the workflow.   

Development = '95% pull'

I notice that the narrative about development in organisations is that managers should 'pull' not 'push'.  I think this comes from the notion that development is an individualistic endeavour.  Clearly, individuals do have a responsibility here, especially when it comes to following their learning interests, but managers are responsible for driving performance and this must include setting development plans linked to the work itself. 

'They aren't career minded so there's very little that we can plan for' 

Many managers talk about only being able to have conversations about development with those who are self-starters or career minded.  They talk quite disparagingly about members of their teams, often younger or older workers, who just want to do the job, don't want to progress and who show little interest in being developed.  This distinction isn't helpful either for the organisation or the individual.  


I am finding that talking to managers about how we learn and stimulating their thinking about the practical things that can be done to plan work-based development is helping to change perspectives.

However, my reflection is that the taken-for-granteds are deeply embedded, especially by the ways in which the performance development process works in practice. 

Much more work needs to be done to help managers shift their thinking and their practice.  If there is an answer, it lies somewhere in making the connection to the work itself.  And as I have written about before - see observing practice - the root of this in learning to observe the work and to place it centre-stage.    


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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

HOW are people learning?


In his address to the Digital Media and Learning Conference in San Francisco in March 2012, John Seely Brown (JSB) said a number of interesting things about the changes required in learning to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.  For the transcript follow this link.  For an animated video summary of the presentation follow this link.

Here are some key points on which I want to comment, which I see as fundamental to the debate about change:

  • 'Just being able to learn as individuals is not enough'
  • 'How do we invest in new types of social practices and new institutional forms and new skills?'
  • 'What are the social practices?'
  • 'How do you participate in the ever moving flow of activities?'

Learning as an 'everyday' participation in ever moving activities

The question 'how do we participate in the ever moving flow of activities' is the right one to be asking.  The emphasis that I want to make in this post is about the 'how'.  And not just how do we participate but also how we learn.

Right now in the workplace, people are participating with each other and learning collaboratively.  This is being done through a process of meaning making that's accomplished through talk: day-to-day, everyday talk about work; done under pressing conditions of time and space to achieve some kind of understanding to enable something to be done; by people who are uniquely skilled to understand the context in that place, at that time.

When we look at work in this way it is irreducible from learning.  People are learning continually and ongoingly through a constant web of interacting elements.  

This web is now being extended by the effect of social media.  I think what we are seeing is the same  process of meaning making in action but amplified on a bigger stage with the opportunities to make new connections over and above what would have been possible in more cellular places of learning, e.g. a meeting, a schoolroom (JSB's reference), a 1:1 conversation across the desk, a phone call.  This process is also generating new institutional forms and skills.

Learning as a social practice

Whilst John Seely Brown's encouragement to, say, do more 'playing' and 'tinkering' might be pointing us in the right direction, these are glosses that miss out on lots of details and therefore we don't have an understanding of exactly how these practices work.

As a social practice learning is constantly variable.  However, this variability also creates complexity, which is a problem for the field and hence why we use abstracted notions as a shorthand to create a sense of structure and certainty when, in reality each learning accomplishment is rather specific to the context and circumstances of the setting.  Harold Garfinkel, the father of ethnomethodolgy, described this as 'just-this-ness' as a way of explaining his attention to the 'work' being done in everyday settings and of their resistance to generalisation.

An example of a social practice in learning that has widespread acceptance and appeal is coaching.  As a practice people who take part in it say that it helps, which is evidence of something, but what?   The question I am exploring is exactly how does it work.  If it helps learning, what are the methods in use that enable this?  In fact, coaching is a composite of multiple practices like questioning, listening, sensing, probing and so on which are themselves glosses.  To be able to explicate them would require detailed analysis in situ and in vivo, i.e. in the place and with the people involved and taking into account the social context.  

My point is that if this is true of coaching, or of other accepted practices like action learning, or neuro linguistic programming, then it is also true for the social practices that are now evolving, which might also include playing and tinkering. i.e. exactly how these things work is important but they remain unstudied

How is this relevant to learning in the 21C?

The premis of JSB, and many other commentators besides, is that the world is changing rapidly, e.g. the half-life of skills being 5 years and so on, and therefore that learning and approaches to it need to change, be that social practices, new institutional forms or new skills.   

My position is that to understand what and how to change we should treat our current social practices as interesting in their own right and to avoid taking them for granted. This means spending time following the action of learning, especially the everyday always-occuring learning in the workplace, to find out what is being done and how.  This will inform and explicate the deeply social nature of our learning practices and enable clearer prescriptions for change.  

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Friday, 19 October 2012

Do we need management courses?

To what extent do we still need courses to teach managers?

I've been thinking about this question for a while now and then the other day I read an interesting blog post by Clive Shepherd 'Bundle resources and you may not need courses' that talked about this topic.

In Clive's work he says he is increasingly being asked to assemble bundles of resources that might include all of the following:

  • Web articles, written in an engaging, journalistic manner, rather like blogs.
  • More formal reference material, in HTML or PDF format.
  • Decision aids, perhaps coded in Flash or JavaScript, but sometimes more simply provided as spreadsheets.
  • Self-analysis questionnaires and perhaps quizzes.
  • Short, simple videos and screencasts.
  • Mini-scenarios that allow the user to check whether they can put what they have learned into practice.
My interest is whether the idea of bundling resources like this represents a prima facie case of a shift from the course (f2f or virtual) to resources?  My hunch is that this might be beginning to happen and, if this is so, then I think it's a really important turn towards what John Seely Brown calls cultivating the entrepreneurial learner.

In Clive's posting he makes the point, accurately in my view, that we still need something like courses, or at least spaces where people can meet, be that f2f or virtually to share ideas, get feedback or meet experts.  Even so, I still find myself challenging the continuing assumption of the need for courses, especially in management development. 

My own research on how managers learn showed that managers don't rely on courses to any great extent.  In fact, in my sample, they made no reference to courses at all when asked about how they had learnt to do the things that they did well..  This finding was supported by a more thorough piece of analysis done over 30 years ago by John Burgoyne and Roger Stuart at Lancaster University in 1976.  This research has been written up in the Manager's Guide to Self Development by Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell.

Notwithstanding Clive's observation, my own experience is that f2f courses remain a central part of the formal provision in many organisations.  And if this is still the case, then why is this?  Some of my questions are these:

  • Does it, for example, reflect a tacit distrust in the assumptions of the 70:20:10 model?  In other words, although we do learn most of what we know from experience and our peers, is it that this type learning is too random to be sufficient to be an explicit element of the learning strategy to meet the needs of an organisation?
  • Is it that the taken-for-granted role of managers to control and direct then leads to approaches that 'push' learning through courses rather than relying on learners 'pulling' on a bundle of resources?  
  • Is it a coded way of saying 'we aren't yet brave enough' to cut loose and drop courses altogether, or at least to reduce their dominance? 
If courses do have a part to play, how clear are we about their purpose, what's expected from learners and the degree of control that we are prepared to release to the learner to follow their interests?

Since I have already hinted at the continuing requirement for courses, I need to help you, the reader, to make sense of where I am coming from by saying something about my interests.

How do we master our learning interests?

I consider myself a mature learner with lots of experience of many types of learning.  Notwithstanding this, I still have a continuing and emergent sense of my learning.  And as an aside, this sense of emergence has been heightened dramatically by accessing the types of resources that Clive has mentioned.  This means that my learning never feels fixed or final.  I cannot know how the connections I have made and will continue to make, will influence my practice; and therefore, how am I becoming a master of management learning (or whatever topic you might choose to insert for yourself)?  

Learning as a movement of continuing and emergent change 

Learning as a process of change is itself a movement that is continuous and emerging rather than fixed.  This shifts the focus away from two periods of stasis - as in from point A to point B - towards a continuous process of becoming.  The key learning principle that emerges, if you accept my point, is that the question 'what is there to be learned about?' shifts from one which is dictated by the course designer and sponsor to the learners themselves.

Leadership is a process that emerges from social interaction

Learning and especially leadership learning is a process that emerges from social interactions.  Therefore, it seems rather obvious to me that leadership learning should be concerned with where, how and why leadership work is organised and accomplised in situ and in vivo and not in the classroom.  This constrasts with leadership learning that is about an individualistic endeavour where individual managers are acting as if they are separate from rather than as part of the system that they are influencing.  Leadership is taught with this individualistic perspective in mind and, as a result, is 'other focused'.  This approach in unhelpful, in my view, because it works on the basis that leaders learn to learn about things that can be applied, unproblematically, to fix other people's performance problems.  In reality, it is the dynamics of the social setting that need to be examined and understood, including their part in this process.   


In my way of seeing things, f2f courses might actually be doing more harm than good because they privilege, in taken-for-granted ways, abstracted knowledge over actual practice. They also affirm, again in ways that are taken-for- granted, the trainer's responsibility to define what is learnt and how and not the learners themselves.

It comes down to this: which came first 'the chicken or the egg'? Do we assume that change happens by placing the responsibility for that change in the hands of 'change agents': teachers/trainers in learning-speak, to teach abstracted knowledge to those who must apply it to actual practice, or do we trust learners to decide what it is they need to know based on what's important to them?

My position is that we do need courses to support management development but that they should be about helping managers to, first, develop the skills of observation, analysis and sense making about what it is that they are doing everyday and, second, to meet either f2f or virtually, to share what they are learning, to get feedback and challenge from their colleagues and external experts.  The acquisition of management theory will form part of this but this would be better placed if it were to follow the learning derived from everday social interaction and not the other way round.

And this is where I see great merit and need for the bundling of resources described by Clive.  It would allow and expect learners to pull on resources that are of interest to their work rather than being directed, in an instrumental way, by senior managers or trainers.


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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Videos,digital reflection and learning

I've posted before about digital reflection and it's value to the learning.

My thanks again to Steve Wheeler from University of Plymouth for a recent post on Learning by Making which affirms the value of asking learners to go through a process of producing something tangible related to their learning interests.  In Steve's example, his students were given a whole day to create a 5 minute video on a subject related directly to their course of study. 

He makes a number of interesting points:

  1. The process of producing the video required the students to come up with a creative concept, produce a storyboard and script, allocate roles, find props, scout out shooting locations, record and edit.
  2. Learning in this way generated spin-offs that have the potential to transfer into other areas of practice like problem solving, making judgements and trade-offs, co-operating with others, delivering to a deadline and working with finite resources.
  3. That theoretical ideas and concepts, normally abstracted from day-to-day practice when taught in traditional ways, can become concrete and situated in the real-life context of the learners.
  4. That the skills demonstrated through this process are those that are essential for 21C working.   

What was equally interesting was the sceptism of many of his colleagues who argued that the time could have been better spent studying text books, writing essays or undertaking practical exercises.

As ever, the debate about learning practice rumbles on and, perhaps, the sceptics have a point.  When organisations are facing a range of very challenging economic and regulatory conditions alongside pressures being exerted by customers, suppliers and politics, whether from inside or outside the organisation, the urge to stick with traditional methods is extremely powerful.

However, in 21C working practice we are seeing a shift away from hierarchies and towards networks, collaboration and the democratisation of power.  All of these have big implications for working and learning. 

Digital technologies  - audio podcats, video, blogs and wikis - provide the means by which learners can make their own learning and then amplify this by sharing it with others through the social media.

My current interest is in the production of user generated content.  Here are some links that I've found from my fellow members of the Social Learning Centre of organisations that are using user generated video content to share knowledge:

 I think we will see more examples of this type of content because it is engaging, democratic and a valuable source of deep learning.

Image via Photobucket          

Friday, 20 July 2012

Collaboration: links and resources

I've put together a selection of the links about networks, collaboration and learning that I have found helpful

You Tube video RSA Power of Networks

I like these RSA animations.  This one is packed with lots of information about the ways in which our understanding of how knowledge has evolved from simple and structured ways of understanding to the interconnectedness all things - species, eco-systems, ideas and so on, - is helpful in underlining the power of networks and networked thinking.

Research report Social Media Garden

(Thanks to Tracy Gravesande, member of the Social Collaboration Community for sharing this).
  • It's a research study into social media at work
  • The research approach is as interesting as the study's findings
  • I liked the idea of reverse mentoring of senior leaders by younger people to help immerse them into social media practice and to experience its benefits
  • Or of senior managers not needing to be active users themselves but just needing to 'get it' and support the development of social media practice in their organisations 

Slideshare  Social Internet

Lots of useful insights about the social internet by Oscar Berg

Case study article

How Nokia achieved organisational dialogue via social media (thanks to Tony Reeves, member of Social Collaboration Community for sharing this)

It's an interesting case example of social media in practice. The job title of Human Resource Director, Community and Social Media is also of interest. It's useful to note that Nokia has recognised a need for such a role and to have placed the responsibility in HR. 

Book: The Collaborative Organization: A Strategic Guide to Solving Your Internal Business Challenges Using Emerging Social and Collabroative Tools  
Oscar Berg has interviewed the author Jacob Morgan in his blog 

A useful reminder by Donald Clark of the importance of note taking to enhance learning and the role of social media to share and amplify what's been learnt.

A nice list of do's and don'ts when connecting with others at work via social media by Andrew McAfee.  The comments section is as rich and helpful as the blog itself

Monday, 9 July 2012

Teams and collaboration

I facilitated an event for 50 people from an organisation last week, the theme of which was about improving collaborative working across the functional team.  What's interesting about team awaydays like this is the tacit assumption that the participants are in fact members of a team at all.  To illustrate, the group I was working with was made up of two interconnected but separate technical disciplines, two distinct product lines and delivery channels and four geographical locations.  This means that although they might be a team in a hierarchical sense, in terms of the day-to-day each individual is focused more narrowly on smaller work units with whom they share strong links and goals.  In this context, improving collaborative working feels more abstract than concrete.  It also creates some conflicting priorities given that time is a limiting factor, i.e. is improving collaboration a choice between getting my work done and helping others?

But if work in the 21st century is about developing ourselves as a node in a network rather than as a position in a hierarchy, then this demands a significant shift in how we think about organisations and about how individuals share knowledge, connect and contribute.  On reflection, it occurs to me that the notions of teams, teamwork and team development might be reinforcing the taken-for-grantedness of the traditional view of what it means to participate with others. 

I shared Oscar Berg's collaboration pyramid because I like the distinction that Oscar has made between traditional, team-based collaboration and social collaboration.

What did I notice? 

I have made a few notes of the things that I noticed as the participants worked through the exercises I had designed for them: network analysis of intra and inter team relationships, speed-dating to share work interests and expertise, brainstorming to generate ideas to improve collaboration and a couple of experiential team games.

  • Most of the current work networks are task focused and reactive rather than proactive.
  • For some, more time spent networking meant a binary choice between meeting or not meeting a work-based goal.
  • Even within a group that calls itself a team, many people didn't know each others names or knew names but couldn't put faces to them.
  • When forced to do so through the 'speed-dating' process, people enjoyed finding out about each other and making connections to both shared interests and new ideas.
  • To complete the task in one of the team exercises, participants could either speak but not see or see but not speak.  During the debrief, participants highlighted the assumptions that were being made: that everybody was feeling or seeing things exactly the same way and therefore that there was no need to share.  However, it was clear that when individuals shared their knowledge, ideas or feelings there was always somebody who could benefit from and make sense of that experience; in the lingo of the social internet we would call this narration. 
  • Recognition from one of the senior managers that things need to change and that collaboration will require a different way of working relative to current ideas of hierarchy, e.g. in sharing power and ways of communicating, e.g. email and team meetings
  • Concern that age is a factor in terms of whether you 'get it' or not
  • Realisation that the new ways of working need to be given 'air' to develop.  This means enabling lots of ideas to flourish by letting people follow their interests and participating with like-minded others regardless of where they sit in the hierarchy.
  • Frustration that 'we have been here before' and therefore what is it that's going to be different this time?
  • The tendency to reinforce traditional ways of working when it comes to taking action, post-event.  I saw an interesting exchange between one of the participants and a senior manager in open forum with the former pressing the latter as to when the follow up meeting would be held to progress the ideas discussed.  This struck me as being both reinforcing of traditional hierarchies and 'other-focused'.
  • Some pockets of great ideas, for example as in an action that is already being taken to develop a wiki to enable shared development of cross-team resources, e.g. documentation.
  • Realisation that collaboration is more than team-working
  • Encouragement from an individual who came to talk to me during a break.  He was new to the organisation and had worked in a couple of other large companies were the social internet was being used actively.  His comments were along the lines of this: "The social internet makes everything transparent.  I've seen this work in an organisation with a tough-minded high performance culture; how much more could be achieved in one where the culture is already more collaborative?"
Concluding comments

Teams and collaboration are not mutually exclusive ideas but the latter extends and challenges a traditional view of teamwork.  It also shifts our understanding of what it means to participate and contribute as an individual.

The social internet is the enabler for collaboration and in many ways this is probably the easiest thing to solve albeit that it doesn't always feel this way when it means competing for IT development time and budgets .  The tough part is in changing current working practices, loosening the ties to hierarchy and encouraging, recognising and rewarding the behaviours of sharing knowledge, connecting and contributing.  I saw plenty to encourage me: of bosses willing to give air to new ideas and to allow new ways of working to emerge, as well as a few reminders that awaydays and their action points are not ends in themselves. 



Saturday, 30 June 2012

Digital reflection - an aid to developing meta-cognition

Blogging literacies

This blog from Steve Wheeler makes some interesting observations about blogging literacies.  He makes the point that blogging isn't just an extension of more traditional literacies.  An extract from his blog states: of the new digital literacies bloggers need is the ability to encapsulate ideas succinctly and in a form that is accessible and engaging. Another literacy is the ability to be able to devise posts that draw an audience and provoke responses. One of the most powerful aspects of blogging is its social dimension which include open discussion. Still another is the skill of managing those responses and replying in a way that promotes further discussion and sustains the discourse. Knowledge about tagging, RSS feeds, trackback and other blogging features will enhance the presence of the blogger online.
Digital reflection

Earlier this year I met the people running a Leeds University funded project on digital reflection. They are using camera, video and audio as a form of reflection to provide a mirror image to reflect upon - a kind of distancing mechanism putting the maker into the shoes of the viewer.

Meta learning skills

In my blog post on how managers learn I commented on meta-learning skills that helps an individual develop meta-cognition, i.e. knowing what you know and knowing what you do not know.  Meta cognition includes things like creativity, mental agility and balanced learning habits and skills.
Implications for management learning practice

My position is that we have to reverse how we approach management learning to really help learners look at their workplace practices ahead of, if not in place of, traditional methods that favour abstracted theory.  Everyday workplace practice contains a great deal of context-specific information about how things get done and I believe it should be placed at the centre of knowledge production and learning.  

The tools to do this are emerging all the time - Swivl is a video tool using an iPhone on a rotating tripod.  And MIT Media Labs have developed sociometric badges.  So alongside the development of blogging literacies are the skills to use video and audio to observe and record the workplace action.    

My interest is in helping managers to:

  • Look closely at the situation specific facts as the basis for action and performance improvement
  • Create context-specific knowledge about how things get done: in this place, at this time, by these people, in these specific circumstances 
  • Boost self confidence by helping to affirm what it is they already know or are doing
  • Provide a platform from which they can then develop and follow their learning interests. 

Saturday, 2 June 2012

30 years of MAMLL - creating a learning hetrotopia

I have spent the past couple of days at University of Lancaster Management School taking part in the 30th anniversary celebrations for the MA in Management Learning and Leadership, or MAMLL, of which I am an alumni (MAMLL 25, 2006-2008).

In one sense events like this are a great means of sharing ideas, meeting people and making connections.  In another sense they are also deeply frustrating: the choices you are forced to make because of parallel sessions, time is a constant enemy truncating interesting topics so as to keep everything on track, the inefficiency of plenary discussion giving priority to the voice of the few over the unsaid thoughts of the many, the ephemeral nature of synchronous conversation.  Don't misunderstand me; it was good; very good in fact.  I really enjoyed reconnecting with the school and engaging with the diversity of topics.  The quality of the sessions was excellent we do love the traditional seminar and being spectators.  It feels familiar and, anyway, how else would you do it?  

For me the biggest gap was the absence of a functioning 3G or wifi link in which to create a backchannel for discussion during the sessions and throughout the event.  With everything reliant on synchronous activity, there were lots of details that were inevitably lost.  I hope that this blog will fill some of the gaps, especially for those that couldn't make it this time.

I've not mentioned all the sessions that I attended.  I've commented here on the things that I noticed; the things that I liked, and those that frustrated me. These are my interpretations on what I experienced.  Others will have seen different things, felt differently, liked some sessions more than me, less than me and so on.     

MAMLL - pushing the boundaries of management learning for 30 years

The principles behind the design of MAMLL have, since its inception, been about creating a space in which participants can develop a critical understanding of their own and others' theories and practices.  It has always pushed the boundaries.  Its assessment process, which is managed by the participants themselves, still feels radical 30 years on.  Prof. Mark Easterby-Smith, one of the founding academics, commented in the opening session on the resistance he experienced when taking the assessment proposal to the university senate in 1982; it got through because the then Director of Education said 'we've got to be experimental'.  

Well done to all who conceived and pushed this process along.  MAMLL may be a bit wacky for some but for those that have taken part, it has created a memorable and sustained learning experience.  The word that kept recurring during the two days was 'confidence'; confidence in one's practice, confidence to explore ideas critcially.        

Learning heterotopia: spaces for layers of meaning & learning to emerge. 

Paintings, music, drama and dance featured in several of the sessions.  I noticed how these media can help to create shifts in perspective that might otherwise not have happened if the presenters had relied on PowerPoint. Prof Vivien Hodgson talked about creating learning hetrotopia: spaces for layers of meaning and learning to emerge. I liked this notion: open, emergent, full of surprises, changing perspectives.

Use of auto ethnography to explore the final months of a family business

This session was about the demise of a family business.  The presentation was a short dramatic piece performed by the couple who had run the business.  No bullet points of 'where did we go wrong?'; just simple narrative dialogue with a few props.  The result was visceral and memorable.

Use of You Tube videos to enhance feedback in a learning set

Working with a MAMLL learning set going through the self-assessment for one of the assignments, the set leader was noticing that, whilst the set members were seemingly getting along well with each other, there was also a sense of them leaving things unsaid and missing some important details in their feedback; a bit like 'dancing in the dark'.  This was raised with the group and a feedback process was proprosed using the music videos to reflect how they were feeling. These included Kate Bush's Running up that hill, Abba's Winner Takes in All and Annie Lennox' - Why?  Critically, the music choices were made on-the-spot rather than after a longer period of reflection to help reveal the layers of process being experienced in that moment.

This was not presented as a 'how to' panacea for improving feedback; but a learning hetrotopia, created in that moment, with that group, providing the space for some something new to emerge.

Role of social media in leadership development

I found this session the most frustrating: too little time, too narrow a range in the issues discussed.  Most noticable was the resistance to social media.  The resistance came from seeing social media as being a generational thing - something that younger people do; or 'just because social media is being used by many people it doesn't mean that everybody has to follow the crowd'; or the risks of comments made online, in haste, being available for all to see; or 'I'm already unable to keep up with the emails in my inbox, how can I deal with another flood of information?

Fair points?  Well they reflect what many people feel about social media so in that sense, they do represent one view.

In my experience, social media has a great deal to offer leadership development.  It's true that organisations are still working out exactly how far they want to open up their networks to allow employees access to the web.  But practices are changing.  The presenter referred to the research done last year by the Towards Maturity think tank about trends in e-learning.  Link here to download their reseach report

The Yammer-hosted Social Collaboration Community run by Jane Hart at c4lpt was also mentioned.  In my experience, it's an excellent forum for collaboration on all issues related to the use of social media in learning.  If you want to know more follow this link to Jane's site.  

Digital reflection: using digital stories to reflect upon and present your learning

The perfect counterpoint to the resistance seen in the previous session came with this brilliant piece on digital reflection. I loved the way in which this approach is using the creative arts as an alternative to traditional written assessments and using digital technologies to enable collaboration.  To quote from the Digitalis website

'Digital technologies can provide a platform to engage in shared reflective practice, and also to share reflective outputs in a way that is both engaging and interactive.  The viewer can provide feedback, which then feeds back into the learner’s reflective process.'  
'Hear, hear'.  Take a look at Digitalis for the full details of the work being done.   
Concluding comments

Thanks to the organising team for orchestrating a very successful event and to the presenters, mostly MAMLL alumni, who put themselves out there and shared their practices.

Very best wishes to all those currently wading through MAMLL's, at times, arcane processes on their journey to academic nirvana.  And to the next 30 years...  

Collaboration zeitgeist

Collaboration feels like one of those zeitgeist topics.  I have been sense-making on this topic for a few months now.  Here are a few of the things that have been interesting me.

Two comments to start with. 

First, collaboration isn't something that can be converted or reified as if it is something concrete.  It is a complex responsive process in which participants actively engage with each other through conversation.  The conversation can be face-to-face or in print or online; it can therefore be synchronous or a-synchronous.  The conversations are emergent and self-organising and, to be successful, power needs to be shared.  

Second, collaboration has a sense of the 'new black' about it; it's not a new idea because, as humans, we have always collaborated by learning from each other.  However, the web is the engine of change; it is connecting people and amplyfying ideas at massive scale. 

The collaboration pyramid

I like Oscar Berg's collaboration pyramid because of the way it draws attention to the hidden value creating layers in organisations.  Therefore, rather than treating collaboration as something else to be done, perhaps the first step is just to recognise what's already happening.

Nodes and Networks

Harold Jarche blogs regularly on networked working and I'd recommend this piece 'It's all about networks'.  Things that stand out for me are that collaborative working will require a break from traditional organisational thinking; from having a position in a hierarchy to a node in a network.  The collaborative enterprise will require porous communities of people operating in looser hierarchies and stronger networks.  For example, the multinational food company Danone has created a 'Neworking Attitude' programme to shift a culture of localised, hierarchical decision making to one of cross-function/country collaboration.

Collaborating with customers

Extending the nodes and networks idea can also include collaboration with customers. Managers at the toymaker Lego saw that not everything needed to be developed internally and it draws on the interests of its loyal fan base to develop ideas for products.  

Chief Collaboration Officer?

Should there be a formal organisational response to collaboration?  There have been a number of articles and blogs about this over the past few months about the role of a Chief Collaboration Officer.

Can one person or function be responsible for collaboration?  If there is a case for creating such a role it is because organisations are seeing the opportunities that  greater connectedness, enabled by the web,is unleashing and that this then requires attention on a collaboration strategy and investment in relevant systems and tools.  And is this a new role or an extension of say the CEO, CIO or CLO?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Ten faces of management development

At the moment, I am working on the design of a leadership programme for new leaders. It's going to be a formal introduction to the topic of leadership to make sure that all new starters have got a grounding in the basics.  There will be a programme of 1 day workshops that will be accompanied by an online facility with a range of tools and resources.  It will add up to a solid piece of competence development I think...

...and then I came across a recent survey done by Jane Hart, written up in her blog Learning in a Social Workplace.  This showed that only 14% of respondents felt that company training was an essential way for them to learn in the workplace.   

It reminded me of a thought-provoking paper that I read  a while back called 'Ten Faces of Management Development' written by Stan Lees at Lancaster University in 1992.

Lees' analysis is interesting in that, of the 10 faces defined, only two or three might meet some kind of test as being for a formal learning purpose with an emphasis on performance. The rest tend to move away from comptence development as being the principal justification towards a concern for social conditioning into the-way-things-are-done-around-here. 

'Faces' like socialising managers into the corporate ethos or as a means of  regulating and administering succession management, or as compensation, i.e. learning as part of reward or in a ceremonial role to mark managers' journeys through organisations. 

Lees' observations reflect my experience, especially in management development.  And whilst on the surface formal training programmes may be justified in terms of raising performance - just like the programme I'm developing at the moment - maybe the underlying reasons might not be about training, or at least not in a formal sense. 

Perhaps it has always been the social element of our learning that's been important to us; the storytelling, the 'gathering around a camp fire'.  Jane Hart's survey shows that people place more value in social learning than formal company training.  In some ways not much has changed in 20 years since Lees published his paper.  But we are entering a time where online tools are creating step changes in the ways in which we can learn from and collaborate with each other and these will reduce both the performative and social justifications of traditional programmes.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Gennchi genbutsu...Go and see

One of the people that I follow on Twitter @orgsci tweeted Genchi Genbutsu....go see, to understand.  So I did and discovered that this is a concept from Lean Thinking.  I liked its clear direction to just 'go and see' and it captures succinctly my interest in using workplace action to inform management learning.
I also found this distinction between Western and Eastern learning ideologies, which is relevant to this post.  To quote from Pete Abilla's shmula blog:

In Lean Thinking, “Go and See” is more of a management mindset than a technique or tool applied. To contrast, here are two approaches to learning about and solving problems (these are general comments):
  • In the West: problems are learned about and solved in a conference room or in a boardroom; there is distance. Decisions are made from a powerpoint presentation and excel spreadsheets.
  • In the East: problems are learned about and solved where it actually happens; in manufacturing, fulfillment and distribution, and like occupations – that means on the factory or shop floor.

In their article in Organization Science (1991: 2 (1): 40-57), ‘Organizational learning and communities of practice: toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation’, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid said:

Most conventional learning theory, including that implicit in most training courses, tends to endorse the valuation of abstract knowledge over actual practice and as a result to separate learning from working and, more significantly, learners from workers.
I think 'going and seeing' should be part of management learning practice.  We should ask managers to observe their practice and use the classroom as a reflective space.

There are three pedagogical reasons for this (with acknowledgement to the work of Professor Robert Chia).

1. The imperative to stay with the ambivalence and ambiguity of the not-yet-known

Managers have to act into the not-yet-known.  Models and theories might well provide some pointers but they also create the illusion that management practice can somehow be contained within a simplistic 2x2 matrix or a Venn diagram of overlapping circles.  If management practice is ambiguious then Management Learning practice should reflect the same challenges.  It should be a critical and reflexive form of inquiry that is focused on observed practices as they emerge and not limited to a diet of models that dulls the inquiry process and separates learning from working.   
2. How a situation emerges crucially shapes its meaning, interpretation and significance

In the course of their work, managers develop strategies, create visions, make statements about values and required behaviours and organise work.  But they do so as active members rather than separate from the systems they are trying to influence, and so, unlike a machine, human responses cannot be pre-programmed.  What happens is that when managers act people create their own meaning, interpretation and significance from what has been said or done.  Managers in turn have to respond to the responses and so the situation branches in many possible directions that cannot be predicted in advance. The alternative would only be possible if people really did respond like automatons to managerial direction.

3.  The significance and importance of experimental action as a means of surprising ourselves and, therefore, breaking new ground in our self-understanding.

We already know from research that at least 80% of  management knowledge comes from experience.  If we accept this as being valid, then it must also change the way in which management learning is practiced.  Formal programmes should, as minimum, be redesigned or possibly even replaced by approaches that place experimentation and action at the centre of how learning is done.  This would require the learner to experience the challenge of making and formulating their own inquiries from which they would break new ground in self-understanding. 


'Go and see' feels like a direct and practical way of expressing something rather important about managerial practice. My expectation is that this approach would enable managers to generate valuable workplace knowledge that is focused on performance rather than theory.  What surprises me is its absence from current learning practice.  Perhaps the forces of tradition and inertia perpetuate the status quo? 

I'm working on approaches that would integrate observational practice with more traditional management learning.  Part of what I'm considering is how best to get managers to do this well so that they can collect data of interest.

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